Some programs like their kids to carry a chip on their respective shoulders. North Texas? North Texas prefers to roll with the whole bag.
“Really, the only reason I came was because so many people said I couldn’t (do it),” Mean Green left tackle Michael Banogu said. “And I really wanted to prove everybody wrong.”
The Mean Green dig believers. They take walk-ons seriously in Denton, devoting a wall inside the football offices to celebrate the 32 players since 2011 under then-coach Dan McCarney who paid their own freight and eventually were granted a scholarship. More than a third of the roster is comprised of current or former walk-ons — including Banogu, big No. 66, hellbent on showing the world what’s what.
“It’s pretty close to the end,” said Banogu, who’ll play his final road contest with North Texas on Saturday, when the Mean Green (1-9, 1-5 Conference USA) visit Middle Tennessee State (5-5, 4-2) at noon ET on ASN. “It’s surreal, kind of.”
In some ways, Banogu, a senior out of nearby McKinney, Texas, is the walking, pancaking epitome of the mantra in Denton, the spirit and the spine. Born in Nigeria. Moved to the States when he was a toddler. Raised in a single-parent household, the second oldest of five boys. Believed he could cut it against college football’s elite, but college football’s elite weren’t offering a free ride. Accepted a scholarship to a Division II school. Still believed he could tackle the elite. Hell, never stopped believing.
“I just felt like I wasn’t getting better,” recalled Banogu, who’d originally signed with Arkansas Tech out of McKinney Prosper High School. “After three semesters at my old school (I left) … and I felt it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
But it almost wasn’t. His mother, Ugochi, raised, clothed and fed five boys — five tall boys, all between 6-foot-1 and 6-5 as adults — in a single-income household on a nurse’s salary. They’d toughed out the 2013-14 season at North Texas thanks to loans and savings. But things over the next summer were coming to a head, and Michael’s tuition for the next fall had landed on the family’s chopping block.
During preseason camp that August, Banogu told his position coach that the situation had become untenable. The next day, McCarney broke the news before the team’s 2014 “mock” game: A scholarship was Michael’s — and just in time.
“It was definitely a big deal,” Banogu said. “Coach Mac had (said) that he only had two scholarships or three scholarships left, and he felt I deserved one. And I was kind of waiting to see if I did, (and) immediately called my mom to let her know. She was definitely ecstatic. It helped a lot.”
And sometimes, to appreciate the destination, you have to understand the journey. The Banogus left Nigeria when Michael was 4 years old. His biological father left them not long after that.
“Yeah, we definitely stuck together,” Banogu said. “My older brother (Prince), he’s kind of the father figure; he had to grow up a little earlier. We kind of stuck together.
“It’s funny, because whenever we’d get into trouble, we would kind of all lie to (protect) each other. And that would make my mom super mad. We’ve stuck together for a while now.”
The boys grew up healthy. Mostly, they grew. Michael is 6-5, 299 pounds; brother Ben is a defensive end at Louisiana-Monroe who checks in at 6-4, 257.
The fridge? Never mind the fridge. Pity the poor furniture.
“We did a bunch of (roughhousing),” Michael recalled with a laugh. “Mom used to pull her hair out at night. She had a tough time with us.”
But they learned to forgive, learned to soldier on, learned to keep calm during the roller-coaster days. Which was good training, ironically, for the last three years with the Mean Green, a story that’s run the gamut: A bowl victory on New Year’s Day 2014, followed by a record of 5-17 over the next two seasons and McCarney’s ouster.
“You try to focus on what you have to do,” said Banogu who started the final two games of 2014 and nine of 10 this season. “Obviously, with Mac getting fired, it’s definitely weird. But you can’t control any of that stuff. The only thing you can control is who you are and what you do on the field. And coach (Mike Canales) does a good job keeping us level-headed and keeping us focused.”
Tough times don’t last. Tough people do. Banogu is pursuing a master’s in sports management, bracing for the next curveball. He never stopped swinging. Never stopped pushing. Never stopped believing.
“It was good that I took this journey,” he said. “But I was a young, naïve kid, and now I’m definitely a little wiser. I’ve grown up a lot since then.”